The Bible ignores Palestine

February 9, 1996

The headline "The Bible bashers" (THES, January 19) sensationalises and trivialises an important academic debate within biblical studies.

Furthermore, the claim that I explained to Simon Targett that "the Jewish version of the Old Testament" is a fiction is extremely misleading. My book is concerned with a central debate within biblical studies over the way in which influential figures have used the biblical texts for historical reconstruction. I do not use the phrase "the Jewish version of the Old Testament" but refer to European and American scholars, many of whom were Christian, who have shaped the debate on the history of ancient Israel.

What I try to show is that conceptions of the European nation state, allied to a strong notion of evolutionism, have been retrojected into the past. These ideas have, in my opinion, continued to influence biblical scholars and archaeologists. I do not suggest that "ancient Israel is an invention of modern scholarship" in the sense that such an entity did not exist. This is a point that Israel Finkelstein appears to misunderstand in his accompanying response.

The debate is over how much we know about ancient Israel in the early Iron Age and how far the biblical text contributes to such a picture. Similarly, the question about the Davidic monarchy is not a denial of its existence but a debate over its extent and the kinds of assumptions that have been built into biblical scholarship.

Central to my argument is that this focus on ancient Israel has come to dominate and thereby effectively silence the study of the history of ancient Palestine, in terms of a much wider regional history.

Your article focuses upon reactions to particular scholars who are labelled as sceptics. Yet it is by no means clear that Professor Kitchen's reported remark about reviving 19th-century "anti-semitic trash" was in response to anything that I have written. Therefore, I feel no need to reply to such an offensive remark.

I simply reject the response of Professor Malamat to my paper at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Philadelphia. I assume that the term "anti-biblical" can only mean that we read the Hebrew Bible differently since I do not deny its existence, which would be preposterous, but emphasise its literary character and importance as sacred scripture for major world religious traditions.

The debate is over how far one assumes that it is historical reporting: a debate which has been going on in biblical studies for a very long time.

Similarly, I reject the claim that my work could be understood as "anti-Israel". I point out, following many others, that all nation states invest a considerable effort in the construction of a national past, Britain included. That is hardly anti-British. The central issue is how the past is constructed and used in the present. I try to examine these issues and their implications in the context of a lack of concern with the history of ancient Palestine.

It should be noted that the five official respondents to my paper in Philadelphia, and the vast majority of the audience, concentrated on the academic issues in what was a rigorous but enjoyable debate.

Similarly, Israel Finkelstein has offered a typically thoughtful response as I would expect of someone who has been central to the debate and whose own recent work has contributed so much to major shifts in our understanding of the history of the region.

However, contrary to his claim that I ignore current emphases in contemporary scholarship, it is the Braudellian approach to demography, settlement, and economy which I have long advocated in the study of ancient Palestinian history.

Where we disagree, I believe, is that it is vital to address the ideological and political dimensions of all scholarship, rather than trying to ignore or deny them, if we are to move to a much better and more balanced understanding of the achievements of all the inhabitants of the region.

Keith W. Whitelam Department of religious studies University of Stirling

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